Though only a week has elapsed since a colossal 8.8 threw Chileans out of bed and gave the country it’s most important architectural exam in decades, it has fallen out of most news coverage as if it had occurred many months ago. This is perhaps for the best: though one cannot ignore the ongoing tragedy of those caught near the epicenter, suit-and-tie talking heads have since hailed the survival of Santiago, only 200 miles from the epicenter, as a testament to effective regulation and expert planning.
Yet it is misleading and to assume the city unscathed. I live with a host-family in the Santiago comuna of Las Condes, and though our apartment walls suffered some chipped paint, several buildings in various comunas, particularly “Recoleta, Independencia, Santiago Central, Maipú and Nuñoa” have suffered structural damage despite strict federal building standards, according to Sebastian Gray, a professor of architecture at the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile. Deepening the mystery is that preliminary reports note these to be modern “mid- and high-rise middle-class housing complexes” and not dilapidated shacks stuffed into the poorer corners of the city.
Santiago grew astronomically in the 20th century, and its location in such a seismic region of the world made urban planning especially difficult for a young country still vulnerable to political setbacks. The standards to which the Chilean government has held local building authorities, enumerated in the Ley General de Urbanismo y Construcciones, evolved over the very seismic 20th century to eventually emphasize the use of reinforced concrete to protect against earthquake-induced collapse. More precisely, a “strong columns weak beams” system was developed to localize damage to presupposed areas of a building and diffuse most of an earthquake’s energy before it could reach the building’s steel-framed, concrete columns. It is a phenomenal design that kept Santiago—and even most of Concepción, only 70 miles from the epicenter—on their feet.
Thus the damage in Santiago was not a result of structural design or building materials. The problem was enforcing federal regulation—a flaw in political, not architectural, structure. According to Gray, “Local building authorities (at municipal level) are responsible for the enforcement of the law, but not on-site supervision.” Indeed, local authorities were deprived of such supervisorial powers in 1979 when the market friendly Política Nacional de Desarrollo Urbano declared that “urban land [was] not a scarce resource” and called for minimal state intervention in planning, igniting a circus of frantic development across the metropolitan area driven by developers feverishly grabbing at any patch of habitable earth. It was revised to hinder the unregulated chaos in 1985, but the damage had been done; hundreds of home-units and other structures with potentially sub-par building standards had been erected in the free-market rush.
The deregulation of urban planning was part of a broader series of reforms under the military government of General Augusto Pinochet that loosened state control over virtually everything and threw even the most basic resources into the hands of salivating venture capitalists. It was an experiment in the era of neoliberalism, a bloody span of time marked by US-sponsored coups d’état all across Latin America in order to institute an economic philosophy that preached confidence in markets over governments to handle resource allocation. Forty years later, we can look at the consequences of that time and clearly see that profit often tended to trump safety as a priority.
Granted, the damage in Santiago could have been much worse. Delving into hypothetical situations is usually unproductive, though one can’t help but imagine how Santiago would have fared if the quake had struck much closer. It is perhaps another lesson learned, through blood and battered brick, about the dangers of skimping regulation and prudence in favor of short-term profit. Santiago is still standing now, but it’s only a fleeting peace until the next big one, and hopefully those who forgot that were rattled out of their naïve slumber when the earth shook last weekend.